Arab Spring of Nations: what's next? -- Tunisia: between hope and political instability

by Wael Abdel Hamid, Arab Spring Series // Published March 25, 2011

The Arab world is still in trouble. Revolutionary nations Tunisia and Egypt are struggling for a successful, peaceful and democratic transition. Other peoples, especially in Yemen, Jordan and Bahrain, are still fighting for change.  In a blog series introduced on March 22 , I am focusing on what's going on in Arab countries at the center of change.


After Egypt, today I turn to developments in Tunisia. The nation where today's Arab revolts began seems to be the theater of many hopes either nourished by the Tunisian people or the international community. But after 23 years of Ben Ali's reign and a sudden revolution, the nation could also fall back into the violence it knew during last winter.

Firstly and essentially, this fear exists because the transitional government has been unable to fulfill all its functions as a guarantor of stability. Indeed, this institution is weak and shows how difficult it can be to provide concrete reforms for its people.  Contrary to Egypt who held its first fair election in adopting new constitutional provisions on  Saturday 18th March, Tunisia has not yet held any referendum on crucial topics such as constitutional, electoral, economical or social reforms.  The most-and unfortunately the only-notable measure taken is the plan for a popular election on the 24th of July for electing members of a constitutional assembly  that will be in charge of writing a new constitution.

On the other hand, Tunisia's current interim president Fuad Mebazaa has more legitimacy to reform than Egypt's Omar Suleiman. Mebazaa is old, known for his wisdom, and the former chairman of Tunisia House of Representatives. Thanks to this function he can enjoy high popularity -certainly more than Mohammed Ghanouchi, former prime minster of Ben Ali, who was the principal personality of the country before February 27th. He resigned after huge protests in Tunis' streets. "We can't make new with old"... déjà vu?

It's an open question as to whether Tunisia is more stable than its Middle Eastern neighbor Egypt? Are Tunisians right in taking their time to reform?

On the one hand, they seem to follow one of the great advices of the founding father of the independent Tunisia, Habib Bourguiba who said in 1957 "The writing of a constitution implies too much important choices to do it without due reflection". Tunisian reformers consider that, the time spent waiting for a constitution is not to time wasted on reform but instead is intended to let people to get to know notions such as liberty or democracy. After 23 years of a strongman reign where a dictator made the decisions for them, Tunisians must create systems used to rule themselves. These are the first steps of the construction of a solid democratic system according to Me Chawki Tabib, a lawyer who is part of the coalition in power.  Tabib continues,  

"People now are at the time of exploring politics, exploring liberty, democracy .[...]Now you see in the media, in newspapers, people are discussing what is the parliament, what is the presidential system, and
people are discovering what it means to live in liberty."

Tunisian elites are discussing the future form of their regime like for example in this article, in French, where a Tunisian blogger from an academic background describes the important questions the government is debating right now.  Tunisian's elites question, will Tunisia be a Presidential or a Parliamentary regime or a semi presidential one as in France. It is, for sure, a crucial question but should it be the priority?

Indeed, Tunisia seems to have some other more important reforms to do. Hillary Clinton effectively pointed out these priorities on March 17th. Economical and social reforms must be done to calm the ardor of a people silent thanks to the post-revolution euphoria. As far as electoral reforms are concerned, Tunisia has already a fair system for electing representatives thanks to proportional representation.
Moreover, the long period without strong leadership in this country could be very dangerous. Tunisia does not have Belgium's political stability to stay for such a long period without any form of strong government.
To finish, this anonymous western diplomat's quote from the Washington Post sums the situation very well:

"all the ingredients for a successful transformation," the process could be endangered if there is "too much floundering" or too little transparency."

Let's hope that time won't be an enemy of the post-Ben Ali era in Tunisia.